Although Elbow have released a new album roughly every three years since their Mercury Prize nominated 2001 debut Asleep in the Back, the time between each of their long players always seems much shorter than this. This is largely due to the albums’ unparalleled quality and staying power, which demand that listeners keep them in heavy rotation for months, even years, after their official release dates. Across the band’s prolific recorded repertoire, nothing even remotely approaches mediocrity. All six of their LPs to date are excellent, inspired fare, and together form one of the most impressive and consistently rewarding discographies of the 21st century, with 2005’s Leaders of the Free World being my personal favorite.
This past Friday, Elbow unveiled their seventh studio album Little Fictions, the much-anticipated follow-up to 2014’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything and frontman Guy Garvey’s 2015 debut solo effort Courting the Squall. Produced by the band’s Craig Potter, Little Fictions also represents the first album the group has recorded as a quartet, as long-time drummer Richard Jupp departed in March of last year. Indeed, Jupp’s exit signals a new chapter in Elbow’s storied career, and his absence has offered the band more flexibility and freedom than ever before in experimenting with different, drum machine driven percussion patterns, as evidenced across Little Fictions’ ten songs.
Despite the sonic implications of the leaner lineup, however, Little Fictions remains a signature Elbow record, bolstered by the juxtaposition of Garvey’s masterful, contemplative songwriting with sweeping, shimmering arrangements that provokes the mind, emboldens the heart, and ultimately, restores the soul. While there are political undertones reminiscent of Leaders of the Free World and reimagined for the Brexit and Trump age we’re now living in, this is fundamentally and unabashedly an album about the redemptive power of love and romance, with a valiant optimism, defiance, and sense of renewal pervasive throughout.
The album opens in anthemic fashion with the soaring first single “Magnificent (She Says),” a sanguine ode to the unfettered thrill of witnessing a young child’s innocence and discovery, amidst the backdrop of new love, as Garvey reflects “And there she stands / Throwing both her arms around the world / The world that doesn't even know / How much it needs this little girl.” Garvey, who married the English actress Rachael Stirling last year, recently explained to The Sun that the song was inspired by his honeymoon, during which “Every morning I was woken up by a kid playing in the sand and it was the loveliest thing to see.” The song’s second verse offers yet another prime example of Garvey’s unique penchant for understated eloquence and sincerity, as he reflects, “This is where it all began / To light your mother's cigarette / And I got to touch her hand / And my heart, there defrosting in a gaze / Wasn't built to beat that way / Suddenly I understand.”
On an album utterly devoid of filler, a handful of standout tracks do emerge upon repeated listens. The propulsive, daydreamy serenade “Gentle Storm” is sure to induce more than its fair share of goosebumps and fluttering hearts, with Garvey’s repeated refrains of “fall in love with me” in the chorus suggesting the importance of the continual, if not daily, revitalization of love. The divine “Trust the Sun” is a chugging, hypnotic ballad with piano-laced flourishes and Garvey’s vocals gliding reassuringly throughout, while closing track “Kindling” is an epic love song that slowly builds steam and emotional suspense a la “One Day Like This,” arguably the band’s most recognizable song to date.
The stirring “K2” features the most unmistakable reference to the cultural and nationalistic insularity that prompted Brexit in lines such as “Hands up if you’ve never seen the sea / I’m from a land with an island status / Makes us think that everyone hates us.” Over the resplendent sonic backdrop, Garvey alludes to the ennui brought upon by the state of the world’s affairs and his inclination to head for the hills, when he sings, “I’ve been asleep in the woods with a mother to be / Planning on a static caravan in the Andes / Making a break with the steel magpie on the rise.”
Another unequivocal highlight is “Head for Supplies,” Garvey’s endearing rumination on finding the true love that evaded him for a lifetime, with the imagery of the second verse particularly evocative: “Way down inside me was a pilot light / That good friends tended and fed with tiny kindnesses / And there was comfort in a stranger’s bed from time to time / It has to be said it just reminded us / The brief ignition of a hopeful flame but there and then gone / It wasn’t the same and then a rostrum struck / The way you read me like you wrote this book / And chapters along it’s still in your eyes.” Also notable are the multi-layered, percussive “Firebrand & Angel” and the enveloping title track replete with unorthodox yet intriguing tempo changes, which finds Garvey acknowledging the emotional baggage and personal narratives that we each must reconcile when beginning relationships anew.
Admittedly, my own anticipation for each new Elbow record has come to be riddled with a fair amount of anxiety. Most great bands have succumbed to complacency at some point in their careers and have a forgivable dud or two in their repertoires to show for it. Because of this reality, I always half-expect these gentlemen to falter at some point and break their streak of brilliance, collapsing beneath the weight of the great expectations we all have of them now.
Thankfully, Little Fictions proves that Elbow is not like most bands and their streak remains gloriously intact. And in this time of nearly intolerable uncertainty about the state of humanity, this album reminds us that the human spirit is still alive and kicking, radiating a much-needed warmth in a world that feels increasingly cold and disconnected.
Notable Tracks: “Gentle Storm” | “K2” | “Kindling” | “Magnificent (She Says)” | “Trust the Sun”